On the Trail

Into the Côte d'Or

David Driscoll

Welcome to Burgundy's Côte d'Or: the most coveted, heralded, treasured, and expensive series of vineyards on the planet with an overwhelmingly-complex network of owners who have been passing down their plots for generations. What's particularly fascinating is exactly how these inheritances are divided. For those of you who are just getting your feet wet, it started back in 1804 when Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that all assets and property left from a parent must be divided equally among the children, including vineyards in Burgundy. That means a father who owned one hectare of vines and had four children must legally divide that holding into four parts; one parcel for each child. Imagine how that's worked out over the last two hundred years for these families! At this point there are brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins all in possession of a few vines here and a few more over there. Maybe two rows in this vineyard and another few rows in that one. In order to scale up and produce wine as a domaine these days ambitious winemakers have to buy out the rest of their relatives, which has become a nightmare for smaller producers who don't have that kind of cash just sitting around. That's why you'll often see a number of domaines with the same last name, but various first names like Anne Gros, Michel Gros, and Bernard Gros. It's also the reason you'll find Burgundy wine geeks out there who are so obsessed with the placement of these parcels that they've spent their entire lives mapping out who owns what, what lies where, and how where turns into greatness. 

But that's not to say families don't stick together. We spent the morning with the Parent sisters, Anne and Catherine, who have pooled their inherited plots and continued on under the same label. In Burgundy, the term "domaine" means the vines are owned by the producer and Domaine Parent has holdings in Pommard, Beaune, and Corton, as well as a number of chardonnay plots in Monthélie. We tasted through the 2014 and 2015 vintages while Anne poured and walked us through the wines. I found her utterly charming and appreciated her ability to explain each expression with clarity and without ever sounding professorial. Alex asked Anne if she was relieved by how much better both harvests were than the difficult 2013, to which she answered: "I think 2013 is a fine year, but you can't ask a Toyota to be a Porsche. At the same time, a Toyota can be very useful. Serious winemakers know how to make good wine in any vintage." I couldn't help but respond by asking her: "Are you a serious winemaker, Anne?" She smiled and filled my glass a little higher. 

One of the specifics each winemaker made sure to clarify for us at each appointment was the proportion of whole clusters used during fermentation versus berries that have been separated by hand. When you use whole clusters of grapes it means you're not destemming, which means you're adding little bitter pieces of wood to the wine that impact the final flavor. It's a useful strategy in terms of balancing tannic structure to fruit, but you have to be careful. Anne told us: "To use stems you have to be sure about their health and maturity or else you can end up with bitter or green flavors." Today many winemakers may do 20%, 50%, or even 100% whole cluster fermentation depending on the vintage and the vineyard. Add that to the dozen other details that can make or break a specific Burgundian rouge. New world pinot noir drinkers often have a tough time coming to terms with some of these earthier, courser, or grittier flavors of Burgundy that result from such practices. They usually prefer the lush fruit and supple ripeness of California or New Zealand pinots. As a result, producers of that forward and friendly style have been rewarded over the last decade with popularity and press, but when that subject came up Anne was quick to point out: "That's not the only vision of wine." 

If the Parent vision of great Burgundy extends beyond delicacy of fruit and into the complexities of terroir, then what constitutes greatness? There's no easy answer to that question, nor is it an easy task to find consensus from winemaker to winemaker. While the vineyard definitely has its say, the rest depends on the philosophy of the producer and the style of wine they want to present. With stems or without? For drinking now or later? Lush and pretty or bold and brawny? Knowing simply the vintage and the region won't help you in Burgundy. You have to dig deeper, both into the Burgundian earth and the complex fabric of stewards who watch over it. Anne mentioned to us that her Pommard vines were farmed organically, yet her neighbor in the same vineyard only a few meters away still chooses to spray his holding. You can have a wine from the same year, the same region, the same vineyard—heck, even the same plot—and the result still may be worlds apart. It's that incredible requisite of knowledge that makes Burgundy the ultimate challenge in the wine world. Yet, many would argue it also provides the ultimate reward. We tasted the 2015 Domaine Parent Grand Cru Corton "Les Renardes" that pretty much brought a tear to my eye. It was perfect in every way possible. It was utterly divine. That's when Anne said to me: "We know the true taste of pinot noir comes from Burgundy." She then patted me on the shoulder and went to find another bottle.

As we advanced deeper into Vosne Romanée I began to notice fortifications and divisions. Stone walls become more apparent, along with iron gates, forbidding doors, and prohibitive shutters. These parcels are no joke. As you move through the village and up onto the hill you see names like Richebourg and Romanée-Conti, perhaps the two most famous vineyards in the entire world, producing wines that sell for thousands of dollars a bottle. Many of these climats go back centuries if not over a millennium. It's imperative that they're guarded and protected. 

We tasted extensively at more than six different appointments as we began to get a sense of the 2015 vintage between different producers. On the whole the wines are riper than 2014 and in many cases we liked them more. Yet, as I've written before, blanket statements are dangerous—especially here. In a number of instances I thought the balance and the complexity of the 2014s were more compelling, but it's hard to argue with that soft and gentle fruit. We've got a few more days here to really feel things out from domaine to domaine. My impressions are only beginning to congeal into any sort of basic understanding.

-David Driscoll